MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “South Island”

Wildlife of New Zealand

When most people think of New Zealand, they think of grand vistas, towering mountains, reflective lakes and sweeping glaciers. But whilst it wasn’t top of my considerations when I first moved here 5.5 years ago, I’ve discovered that it is a country brimming with wildlife too, many of which is endemic to (can only be found in) New Zealand. The country has long flaunted its clean, green image, and whilst there are certainly those who would argue the truth in that, there is certainly no denying that this country is brimming with countryside, nature areas and untouched wilderness. Coming from the UK where every inch of the place has been conquered, owned and settled on, I still find it astounding that there are parts of New Zealand where people just haven’t and can’t set foot. Vast hectares of the southwest are like a jungle and many of the southern fjords remain accessible only by boat.

With no native land mammals, the native birds grew flightless, and in some cases large. Although the giant Moa and its hunter the giant Haast’s Eagle, have long since been made extinct by the arrival of man, New Zealand still remains an island nation of flightless and ground nesting birds. Unfortunately, the accidental and deliberate introduction of mammals and pest species has left some species extinct, and others critically endangered, but find the right piece of forest and the cacophany of birdlife in the canopy brings goosebumps. It is a bird enthusiast’s paradise here, and nowhere else in the world is there an alpine parrot, who’s cheeky antics are always a joy to watch.

With mile after mile of coastline, the seas around New Zealand are breeming with incredibly diverse marine life from the smallest plankton to some of the largest marine mammals in the world. On land, sea and air, there is always something to see if you know where to look.

MAMMALS

Sperm Whale

These behemoths are most consistently spotted off the coast of Kaikoura in the South Island. The 1200m deep Kaikoura Canyon just 500m off shore leads out into the Hikurangi Trench, a 3000m submarine canyon that skirts north past the North Island. This depth houses a submarine world that includes giant squid, the favoured diet of the 56-ton male sperm whales that reside here. Viewed either by plane where the whole body can be appreciated, or by boat where you can get up close to watch them idle at the surface then dive to the depths.

 

Bryde’s Whale

Similar in size and shape to the Minke whale, the best place to see these shy whales is the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula in the North Island.

 

Bottlenose Dolphin

These large dolphins are best spotted in the Hauraki Gulf and around the Bay of Islands in the North Island.

 

Dusky Dolphin

These playful and acrobatic dolphins are smaller than the bottlenose dolphin. Best spotted off the Kaikoura coastline in the South Island. Although difficult to spot in this photo, there are two dorsal fins poking up in this photograph.

 

Hector’s Dolphin

Like the almost identical Maui’s Dolphin, these are the smallest and rarest dolphin in the world. They are also unusual in having a rounded dorsal fin unlike other dolphins that have a pointed fin. They are endemic to New Zealand, found nowhere else in the world. The most consistent place to spot them is off the coast of Banks Peninsula to the east of Christchurch, particularly around Akaroa, although they can be seen up and down the eastern coast of the South Island.

 

New Zealand Fur Seal (kekeno)

Although they look fat and uncoordinated on land, they are acrobats and outstanding hunters in the water. Recovering from years of historical hunting following the habitation of New Zealand, they are abundantly spotted up and down the coastline of the South Island. Guaranteed places to spot them are the coastline of Kaikoura Peninsula, Banks Peninsula near Akaroa, Cape Foulwind near Westport and the outer coastline of both Milford and Doubtful Sounds in Fiordland.

New Zealand Fur Seal

 

European Rabbit

One of many deliberately introduced pest species, these non-native rabbits and hares are most easily spotted in open pastures. The Ministry of Primary Industries estimate their presence in New Zealand results in $50M of lost production and so there are multiple methods in place to reduce their numbers.

 

BIRDS

Kea

The world’s only alpine parrot, these immensely intelligent and fascinating birds are a much-loved sighting in the mountains of the South Island where they are endemic. They have easily become my favourite bird since moving to New Zealand. The most consistent place to spot them is around Arthur’s Pass on the west coast road in the Southern Alps. As they associate humans with both food and toys, they are more than happy to come right up to you, and have been known to work in mobs as decoys whilst they steal your belongings.

 

North Island Kākā

This vulnerable species is another endemic parrot species, living at lower altitudes than the Kea, in low-mid altitude forests. Infrequently spotted in wilderness areas, the Zealandia Sanctuary in the capital city of Wellington offers near-guaranteed sightings of these playful birds.

 

New Zealand Falcon (Kārearea)

The only falcon in New Zealand, they are more commonly spotted in the South Island, especially around bush or the high country. This particular bird was one of two that kept me company at the summit of Roys Peak by Wanaka.

 

Tui

Another endemic bird, they have a beautiful song which is a lovely accompaniment to a woodland walk. With their puffy white bib they have a distinctive look, and are more easily spotted in the North Island, although they are present in the South Island albeit to a lesser degree.

 

Bellbird (Korimako)

For me, this endemic bird has the most beautiful song of all the forest dwellers of New Zealand. I love listening to them when I’m out hiking in the bush. Commonly spotted in the woodlands of both islands.

 

House Sparrow

One of many introduced bird species, I’m used to these birds from growing up in Scotland, but I’ve been struck by how much bolder the New Zealand descendants are. Commonly spotted in rural and urban zones, they are a regular visitor to outdoor cafe tables in the city as they brazenly look for wayward crumbs.

 

Song Thrush

Another introduced species, these can be spotted in woodland areas and occasionally urban gardens.

 

New Zealand Fantail

These playful little birds love flitting through the trees as you walk by. The more common variety has a grey back and yellow belly, but there is also a colour morph in the South Island which is black.

 

North Island Saddleback

Even if you can’t see these birds, boy do you know if they’re around: they’re an incredibly noisy bird. An endemic species, they have seen a local resurgence at the Zealandia Sanctuary in Wellington after having previously been extinct on the mainland.

 

Yellowhammer

Introduced from Europe, this pretty little bird loves nothing more than a tree to perch on near open land to sing its song from.

 

Eurasian Blackbird

Introduced in the second half of the 19th century, the blackbird is now the most widely distributed bird in the country and is commonly seen in rural and urban areas.

 

Chaffinch

Another introduced and widely distributed garden and arboreal bird.

 

North Island Brown Kiwi

The species of bird that New Zealand is probably most globally famous for, these birds are actually very difficult to see in the wild and it is said that most human Kiwis (natives of New Zealand) will never see their avian namesake in the wild during their lifetime. The best chance of seeing a kiwi is actually in Stewart Island where they aren’t so strictly nocturnal. This particular bird was rescued following an injury and is now used for education at a wildlife sanctuary in Northland.

 

California Quail

Introduced as game from North America, they are established in pockets of the North and South Islands and are found fossicking around the undergrowth.

 

Takahē

One of many of New Zealand’s endemic flightless birds, originally there was both a North Island and South Island variety, but the former is extinct. Even the latter was thought to have been lost to history but surviving birds were discovered and thanks to intensive conservation efforts it survives. Most of the population (just 306 in 2016) survives on predator-free offshore islands, but it is possible to see them wandering in Zealandia in Wellington as well as in Te Anau in Fiordland where there is a captive breeding programme.

 

Pūkeko

Known by its Māori name in New Zealand, it is known by the rather less interesting name of Australasian Swamphen in other countries. I fell in love with this bird when I moved to New Zealand and love their comical look and walk. Easily found around wetland areas.

 

Spur-Winged Plover

Like their Northern Hemisphere counterpart, these birds are often sighted around wetlands, or pastures. Their call is quite distinctive.

 

Canada Goose

Widespread in the South Island, but localised in patches of the North Island, these large geese are best spotted on grassland close to waterways.

 

Weka

Another one of New Zealand’s flightless birds, I’ve often overheard tourists confusing these guys for kiwi. Spotted in a variety of habitats from woodland to the coast, mainly in the South Island.

 

Pied Stilt

A distinctive wetland or estuary bird.

 

White-Faced Heron

First spotted in the 1940s, these are a very common heron spotted nationwide around waterways.

 

Black Swan

Spending most of my life in Scotland, I grew up with white swans. Initially a novelty seeing black swans, they’ve quickly become my norm here. Evident in waterways in both the North and South Island.

 

Grey Teal

The largest concentration of these ducks is Canterbury in the South Island although they can be found in the North Island also.

 

Mallard

Commonly spotted in urban rivers and lakes as much as in rural regions, and present in both the North and South Islands. One of the game species allowed to be hunted during the shooting season. Hunting is very popular here with an estimated 500,000 mallards and hybrids shot every year.

 

Paradise Shelduck

Another of New Zealand’s endemic birds, I think they have the cutest ducklings of any duck species I know. Widely visible nationwide, including in urban parks. The fluffy ducklings are a common sight in spring in Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens.

 

Blue Duck (Whio)

If you see one of these, you are very lucky. Endemic to New Zealand they are Nationally Endangered due to both predation from introduced mammals and competition for resources. They have a preference for high quality water and reside in very small geographic pockets. I was lucky enough to spot this solitary whio in Tongariro National Park.

 

New Zealand Scaup

Found on the many lakes of New Zealand nationwide.

 

Variable Oyster Catcher

Commonly-spotted shoreline bird nationwide.

 

Pied Shag

Of the 36 species of shag worldwide, 12 of them are found in New Zealand. This species is the most commonly spotted, seen singly or in groups around coastal regions.

 

King Shag

Exceptionally rare (836 were recorded in 2015), these endemic shags only reside in the Marlborough Sounds and specifically on just 4 special rocky sites. They may not look anything special, but to see such a rare bird is a true privilege.

 

Spotted Shag

Another endemic shag species, mainly spotted in the South Island. In this photograph, the spotted shag are behind the king shag.

 

Stewart Island Shag

Another endemic species of shag, generally around the southern parts of the South Island and Stewart Island. There are two colour morphs, both of which are seen in the photograph.

 

Little Blue Penguin

The smallest species of penguin, these are the same as Fairy Penguins in Australia. The outer reach of Akaroa harbour on Banks Peninsula, South Island is one of the more reliable places to spot these little guys, but I also saw one whilst kayaking off the Coromandel Peninsula in the North Island. Otherwise, there are rescued ones on display at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, where a home is provided for injured birds that won’t survive in the wild.

 

Fiordland Crested Penguin

An endemic species of penguin, these penguins are localised to the south-west of the South Island and the coast of Stewart Island. Listed as vulnerable, I was lucky enough to see 6 of them swimming as 3 pairs whilst on a nature cruise in Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park.

 

Southern Black-backed Gull

Similar to their Northern Hemisphere counterpart, these are a common sighting around New Zealand’s coastal regions. Bigger than the other gulls they can be a bit of a bully.

 

Red-billed Gull

The most common gull sighting around the country, they are easily spotted nationwide.

 

Southern Royal Albatross

One of the two largest species of Albatross in the world, seeing these large birds is an awesome sight. Spending the vast majority of their life at sea, they come to land only to breed. Most of the world’s breeding sites are on offshore and uninhabited islands, but on the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin in the South Island, it is possible to visit the only mainland breeding colony in the world.

 

Australasian Gannet

Their Northern Hemisphere counterpart has always been my favourite seabird growing up in Scotland. Not as commonly spotted as in my native land, the best place to see them is Cape Kidnappers to the east of Napier in the North Island. Here there are 3 colonies that nest in the breeding season.

 

REPTILES

Tuatara

New Zealand’s endemic reptile, tuatara are the only surviving lizard of their order, which started 200 million years ago. In other words, there were tuatara around when the dinosaurs existed. They are exceptionally difficult to spot in the wild and are under threat from predators. Most people’s best bet of seeing them is at a zoo, however, Zealandia in Wellington has a small number that live a semi-wild existence, and if you are lucky, you can see them in the undergrowth when visiting there.

 

Green Gecko

There are multiple subspecies of green gecko that are endemic to New Zealand. Due to predation, they are now very rare. Seeing one in the wild would be a sheer fluke, but several wildlife centres have them on display. These guys were at Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch, New Zealand.

 

INSECTS & ARACHNIDS

Chorus Cicada

The sound of thrumming from these abundant endemic insects is one of my favourite sounds of summer. Found nationwide wherever there are trees, they are at their peak in January and February.

 

Brown Cricket

Crickets are a common accompaniment to hikes up mountains where the size and colour of the cricket can vary depending on the altitude.

 

Green Cricket

Smaller than the brown crickets, I have been regularly hit on the face by these as they jump away when I’m out hiking.

 

Squeaking Longhorn Beetle

Another creature endemic to New Zealand, they have long antennae, and are spotted seasonally from spring to autumn.

 

Huhu Beetle

The largest of New Zealand’s endemic beetles, they are capable of flying. They are best spotted in and around forests as their grubs love rotting wood.

 

Cave Weta

Another endemic insect, there are 60 subspecies of cave weta. Despite their name they are often found outside of caves in the forest, but I spotted this large collection down an old mine entrance near Wellington.

 

Stick Insect

Probably one of the hardest insects to spot due to their incredible camouflage, they are actually very abundant throughout New Zealand.

 

Honey Bee

Like many places, these guys are in decline, but due to the market for Manuka honey products, they are often farmed and seen easily in the summer months out and about.

 

Monarch Butterfly

Probably the most striking butterfly, they are found nationwide. I’ve ended up having to handle these loads because my cat’s favourite game in summer is to grab them, bring them inside the house and let them go.

 

Kawakawa Moth

Endemic to New Zealand and found nationwide.

 

Carove’s Giant Dragonfly

Endemic to New Zealand and found nationwide, although more commonly on the western half.

 

Glowworm

The most beautiful light in the darkness is that created by the larvae that cling to caves and forest walls and light up at night to entice their prey. The most famous caves to see these are those of Waitomo in the North Island, and the glowworm caves near Te Anau in the South Island is another pay-to-enter cave with guaranteed sightings. However, there are many places to spot them for free if you know where to go, just ask the locals. They are hard to photograph unless you are a professional with the equipment to match. These faint twinkling lights were seen at Abbey Caves near Whangarei in Northland.

 

White-tailed Spider

Introduced from Australia, there is a North Island variety and a South Island variety. They are bold spiders that hunt other spiders. They also move quickly and have been known to bite people and pets.

 

AQUATIC/OCEAN LIFE

Cave Lobster

I didn’t even know it was possible to see these in inland caves until I came across one whilst exploring Abbey Caves near Whangarei in the North Island.

 

Crayfish (kōura)

Similar to lobsters, the particular species found around New Zealand are endemic to these waters, with a separate variety between the North and South islands. They are a popular seafood to eat in the country, and the name of the town Kaikoura incorporates the crayfish, translating to ‘eat crayfish’. Best spotted on your dinner plate or if you are a scuba diver.

 

Cockles

Another popular seafood, these are often spotted in the tidal zone on beach walks.

 

Eleven-Armed Sea Star

The largest starfish of New Zealand.

 

Black Coral

Normally growing in deep water due to their preference for darkness, the tannin that leaches into the Fiordland waters creates a false darkness that allows the coral to grow relatively close to the surface. The internal structure is black (hence the name), but they appear white on the outside.

 

Fish

The waters around New Zealand are rife with life, with many fish species to be found if you are a scuba diver or a fisherman.

 

Helicopter Hill

I love the image of hiking through snow under a beautiful blue sky with the yellow orb of the sun shining overhead, but the reality is that getting out into the wilderness in the winter months takes skills that I don’t have. So inevitably, my hiking has a season, and come April it is starting to wind down as the days get noticeably short and the weather turns. Without the northern hemisphere’s luxury of having Christmas and New Year to break up the winter blues, I spend the winter months here counting down till September, the start of spring when I can start thinking about getting back to the mountains. The previous summer I’d managed to tick off a lot of mountains on my wish-list, leaving just a handful within reach of Christchurch still to summit. Unfortunately the weather of the summer just passed fell short and I barely had much opportunity to get into the mountains. So when a lovely April Sunday presented itself, I was keen to get into the Southern Alps and tick one off the list.

It takes about an hour to even reach the mountains from Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island, but on the west coast road, State Highway (SH) 73, there are plenty of mountains to choose from. Passing Trig M which I’d hiked the summer before last, I continued for another half hour past the rock feature of Castle Hill, and the lookout at Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, before turning in at Craigieburn Forest Park and parking up at the campground. As it turned out, I hadn’t paid much attention to the starting altitude, looking only at the summit and feeling it was a good one to add to the list of mountains >1000m (>3281ft) that I’ve hiked in New Zealand. With the car park at 800m (2624ft), it turns out this was a good cheat hike: the stunning views but without a lot of climbing. I was up and down in 3hrs.

As the sun was noticeably low at the end of April, upon entering the forest at the start of the Mistletoe track, I was plunged into a cold shade on the lee of the mountain. In places some dappled sunshine broke through the trees, but it was almost a little chilly in the shaded sections. Sticking with the Mistletoe track at the track junction, it was a pleasant enough forest walk and there were actually several other people on the trail. Eventually as the track hugged into the cold, shaded flank of Helicopter Hill, it began its zig-zag up the mountainside. Only after gaining about 250m (820ft) did the trees open up to give a hint of the view.

 

Whilst Helicopter Hill’s summit is 1256m (4121ft), it is absolutely dwarfed by most of the mountains that surround it. Looking out at this first view point, I could see over the top of the forest and beyond to the tree-less slopes of the Craigieburn Range that include the Broken River ski field. The sky was a beautiful cloudless blue: a gorgeous day to go hiking. Beyond here, there wasn’t much further to go to reach the turn-off to the Helicopter Hill track that leads up to the summit. This junction meets a mountain biking trail and there were lots of bikers out that day too.

 

The whole way up the summit track there was a view to be had in at least one direction if not more. Rocky and loose under foot in places, it was an easily followed path through shrubbery and open vegetation. The peak behind me had a distinctive cone-like summit and as I gained altitude, I could see the buildings of the ski centre in the distance more clearly. I reached the summit just as some of the bikers were leaving and I had it to myself, or so I thought. Some rustling drew my attention to a tree near the summit and I saw a bird of prey sitting majestically at the top. It took to the wing before I could get a photo, and I watched it thermal out of view, leaving me on my own.

 

The view was beautiful. Far below me SH 73 curled through the valley, and the tiny vehicles occasionally glistened as they caught a bit of sun. Many of the surrounding peaks have no name, but there wasn’t a shortage to look at. After enjoying my lunch in the sunshine, I started to head back down the rocky track, passing a group of bikers carrying their bikes up the track. I lost traction in a couple of places underfoot, catching myself before I fell, then before long, I was alerted by some noise behind me to the bikers hurtling down the track towards me. There are many shared hike and bike tracks in New Zealand, but this was probably the most dangerous one I’d been on. The bikers gave no consideration to me hiking the track and I had to keep ducking into a bush to get out their way. Not an always an easy feat when the bush is at the top of a large drop off the mountainside.

 

Back down at the track junction there were even more mountain bikers. None of the hikers I’d met on the Mistletoe Track were anywhere to be seen, but there was a plethora of people out riding that day. To make the hike longer, I chose to return via the Luge track. This stays on a roughly even altitude plane for quite some distance before eventually dropping down the mountainside towards the road that leads up to the ski field. This track though was the main descent for the bikers, so I had to give way time and again as they sped towards and past me. At the bottom, there was a bubbling stream to cross, and out I popped onto the unsealed access road. From here, it was just a matter of following the road down the hill to where I’d parked my car. A much shorter mountain hike than I’m used to, it was a nice autumnal stretch of the legs. A great view for comparatively little effort. What more could you want from a hike?

Autumn Roadie: Christchurch to National Park

The first six weeks of my life in New Zealand, back in early 2012, were spent exploring the North Island. But after setting up a life in Christchurch, in the country’s south island, aside from flying up to Auckland and Wellington from time to time, I haven’t really explored or re-explored the rest of the north island. In the 5.5 years that I have been here, I’ve managed to explore the vast majority of the country but there are still some pockets left to conquer, and in particular I had a hike that I was keen to do but had been thwarted from doing on two previous occasions. So with a week off for my birthday in March, I decided that I was going to head north to do the hike no matter the weather, and faced with the decision of flying to Wellington then relying on public transport, or making a road trip (or roadie) out of it, I had no doubts in my mind I was going to drive myself there.

But just as my previous drive north to hike the Queen Charlotte Track had been disrupted by the closure of State Highway (SH) 1 post-earthquake, this trip too would be longer than anticipated. I had booked the ferry and all my accommodation in October last year, so I had a morning of work to get through first before what should have been just a 4hr drive to Picton from Christchurch. Instead, I was forced to follow SH 7 through the Lewis Pass and onwards through Murchison, and St Arnaud to Picton. I’d had to take this same route for the hike in November, and it had taken 6hrs, but to add insult to injury, just a few days before I was due to leave, a bush fire sprung up on SH 7 and the road closed briefly. As it turned out, this drive couldn’t have been more different than the last time.

SH1 between Christchurch and Picton was always the main thoroughfare between the two settlements, and freight typically travelled by train between them. Now, with both the road and railway out of action, the traffic volume, and in particular the massive increase in heavy goods vehicles using the inland route, the road surface has taken a drumming. With speed restrictions due to road upgrades and slow moving vehicles through the twisting pass, this route is now at least a 7hr drive. It was a beautifully sunny day, and after having done a morning at work, it was a tiring and rather relentless drive, requiring a lot of concentration. The area of the bush fire was still smouldering as I passed through the now blackened landscape, and as the road twisted onwards, spots to overtake the slower HGVs were precious in their rarity, meaning I was reluctant to stop anywhere lest they catch up with me.

And so I ploughed through Springs Junction, skipped past Maruia Falls, ignored Murchison, and only pulled in at Lake Rotoiti where I knew I could stretch my legs and use a restroom. When my partner and I stayed at nearby St Arnaud for the first time a couple of years ago, the place was like a sleepy little village, more commonly full of Kiwis than tourists. Now, the traffic passing through is massively increased, and there were more campervans there than usual. There happened to be a boat show on that weekend, so the waterfront at the boat launching part of the lake was pretty busy, but I pulled up near the pier, where I went for a brief walk to stretch my legs. I love the view here. Unfortunately the sandflies love it too, so any outdoor time needs repellant, otherwise relaxation here can quickly be ruined.

 

Time was not on my side though. The evening was stretching on and I was keen to stop in and say hello to a friend that I would be passing by on route. The reception for my accommodation in Picton closed at 9pm so I was running tight on time to make it there. I had an all-too-brief catch up over a cup of tea in Renwick, near Blenheim, but then it was time to crack on in the dark. It was a little hard to see the potholes coming without the benefit of daylight, but finally I was in Picton, my rest stop ahead of my morning sailing to the north island. I ended up in the exact same room that I had stayed in after completing the Queen Charlotte Track in November last yr.

The following morning there was a beautiful clear sky. It takes a bit of time for the sunlight to creep over the mountains that surround Picton, but I knew it would be a beautiful sailing through the Queen Charlotte Sounds and across the Cook Strait. I’d used the ferry between the islands three times before, but always on the Interislander ferries. For the first time I was using the opposition, Bluebridge. Once on board, I grabbed myself a take-away breakfast and headed up to the outside top deck to watch the changing view of what I think is the most beautiful ferry crossing in the world. The first 1.5hrs of this sailing is curling through the stunning sounds, surrounded by rolling hillsides which hide secluded homes overlooking sparkling bays. The sea was calm and reflective and near Picton there were even some people out on kayaks following the coast.

 

Past East Bay, the route turns a near 90 degree angle, then turns again to cut through between Arapawa Island and the mainland peninsula. Finally, through a dramatic gap in the rocks, it pushes forth into the Cook Strait, the body of water that separates the two main islands of New Zealand. The Cook Strait can be notoriously rough, but on a good day it is a smooth crossing, and I remained outside watching the South Island grow further away and the North Island become sharper through the haze. It takes about an hour to negotiate this section of open water, and there was a little chop on the sea, but nothing that the boat couldn’t handle.

 

Finally, in the middle of Fitzroy Bay, the ferry turned to point in towards Wellington Harbour, and that familiar sight of the country’s capital city. After a wash-out of a New Year’s trip here, it was nice to see Wellington basking in the sunshine again, and I wore the smile I always get when an adventure is coming. Whilst driving in the north island is no different than the south island, this would be the first time I’d been in control of a car in the north island, and as silly as it seemed, this just added to the feeling of being on an adventure. By the time the ferry had berthed, and the announcement had come to return to the car deck, I was excited to get going.

 

After disembarking, I headed straight onto SH1 and left Wellington behind. Climbing up over the hills at the back of the city, SH1 winds its way north, cutting across to reach the Kapiti coastline at Pukerua Bay. A large section of the highway here had been upgraded to an expressway since I’d last passed through, so it was easy to get many kilometers behind me at a good pace. After a while, the coast remains close although hidden out of view. I passed through Foxton where my partner and I had spent the night on our way to Auckland back in late 2013, and finally I reached Bulls, a town which always stuck in my mind from 2012 when I stopped here whilst traversing the island on a Stray Bus pass as a new arrival. From this point onwards though, I was touching new territory for me. My destination was National Park on the edge of Tongariro National Park, and whilst I could have gotten there by staying on SH1, I had decided to follow SH3 to Whanganui (also Wanganui).

With a reputation, I discovered later, for gang-related incidents, I went there without knowing this, and on such a sunny day, I really liked the place. I parked up on Anzac Parade opposite the Wanganui City Bridge, from where a long white tunnel leads underground to an elevator shaft. Built in 1919, the Durie Hill elevator is a kooky tourist attraction taking you up inside the hillside for $2 cash each way. It is a rattly piece of equipment but it does the job, and at the top, the building that houses the elevator also doubles as an observation platform, from where there is a cracking view over the city and the river that snakes past it. Behind it is the tall War Memorial tower. 176 spiralling steps lead up to the top which again gives an impressive view of the city and its surroundings. It was windy up here, and the horizon was a little hazy in places, but I could see both the volcanic Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park as well as the equally volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki in Egmont National Park. I was excited because the previous 3 times I’d driven through Tongariro National Park, the cloud cover had been low and I’d never actually seen the summit of her famous volcanoes, so this was my first sighting of the impressive Mt Ruapehu summit.

 

After soaking up the view on both building’s roof platforms, I retreated back down the rickety elevator and along the extensive tunnel once more before driving across the Wanganui river and parking up in the city. On face value, the city’s waterfront was pretty. The river was rather brown, but there was a pleasant boardwalk along the riverside, with an interesting orb sculpture as well as a paddlesteamer moored up for interest. I cut up from the riverside to Queens Park where the city’s war memorials stood amongst some galleries and sculptures. Despite it being a hot and sunny Sunday, I had the park to myself, and the city was quite a quiet place to be. After a wander round here, I cut through Majestic Square and up onto the hillside overlooking the stadium at Cooks Gardens, before cutting back to the main thoroughfare of Victoria Avenue. Returning to the riverside once more, I returned to my car having fallen in love with Whanganui, but in need of heading ever onwards.

 

The Wanganui river is the largest navigable river in New Zealand, and following SH4 it is possible to follow it upstream to the north. Its origin is Mount Tongariro in the National Park of the same name, and I decided to take the scenic route north by cutting off the main highway and sticking to the road that hugs the river. Almost immediately the Whanganui River Road snaked up a hillside and presented me at lookout spot with a beautiful view up the river valley. In the far distance, the snowy summit of Mt Ruapehu glistened in the sunlight. I was very glad I took this detour. Although the road conditions weren’t great (it is technically a sealed road, but there was a lot of resurfacing going on when I passed through in early March), the views were incredible. It also felt nicely isolated and peaceful with only a handful of other cars travelling the same road, and whenever I stopped, I was serenaded by cicadas. The river flowed peacefully through the ever changing valley, and although it was quite a time-commitment to take this detour, it was worth every minute.

 

It was some time though, before eventually I reached Pipiriki where I took the turnoff to lead me up and through a forestry zone. For more than half the distance, it wound its way through the trees, up and over and around the rolling hillside. When eventually the trees came to an end, and the open countryside spread away before me, I could once again see Mt Ruapehu and this time just beyond it, the distinctive cone shape of Mt Ngauruhoe (better known to some as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) peaked above the horizon behind it. Reaching Raetihi, I rejoined SH4 heading north to pass the western flank of Mt Ruapehu on route to National Park village. I’d unknowingly stayed here before back in 2012, but at the time the weather had been so abysmal, there was no view to speak of and I had no idea how close I was to the volcanoes at the time. This time though, I could see they were right in front of me, although the cloud bank had started to move in for the night.

 

Pretty much everyone at my hostel was there either before or after walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand’s most famous and most popular day hike. It would have been a beautiful day to have done the hike, and I wondered what weather those hiking it the following day would get for it. I had a 4-day hike ahead of me, so after rearranging all my hiking gear, I set off to one of the few places to eat in the village, The Station, which is a cafe by day and restaurant by night. Being a Sunday, they were offering a roast dinner which I duly took up the offer of, washed down by some cider. The following day was my birthday, and as I would be without phone signal or internet for nearly 4 days, I found myself having a video call with my brother and nephew in Scotland, whilst in the middle of the restaurant. Finally though, it was time to retire, for the next day, I would finally be setting off on a much-anticipated hike.

Mount Fyffe

Since moving to New Zealand 5.5yrs ago I’ve summited a good few mountains, often with peaks that are around the same height as or taller than, the tallest mountain of my homeland, Scotland. But the actual altitude gain of the hike varies quite a lot. An impressive summit height is not always reached by way of an equally impressive altitude gain, depending on how far into the mountains the starting point is. But standing on the Kaikoura Peninsula looking inland at the Seaward Kaikoura Ranges of the Southern Alps, my hike for the day looked daunting. For this time round I would be starting close to sea level, and there was a lot of mountain to climb.

 

In February whilst up in Kaikoura for a long weekend, it was the Monday when the conditions were right to head up, and I set off after breakfast down the back roads to reach the carpark. But these back roads were actually a bit of an adventure as repairs following the November 14th earthquake were under way and the road conditions were interesting to say the least. The latter section of the drive on Postmans Road is unsealed and where it went up a steep embankment, my car lost traction on the stony track. Thankfully no-one was coming in the other direction. Parked up and kitted out, I was then ready to set off.

The track itself is a well-defined 4×4 track, quite wide although in places the substrate can be slippy under foot. In the lower section, there was evidence of recent landslips, evidence of the earthquake and some of the rains that have fallen since. It is a steady and zig-zagging climb surrounded by trees with the initial views being of the river valley where the braided Kowhai river snakes through on route to the Pacific Ocean which is also just visible beyond the flatness of the Canterbury Plains to the east. There were portions of this lower section that were shaded, but once the zig-zagging stopped, the rest of the hike was almost completely exposed to the elements, so under a nearly-cloudless sky, I was slapping on the sunscreen like it was going out of fashion. I learnt early on that my Scottish skin burns in little time at all in the Southern Hemisphere summer so from November through to March, I’m permanently shiny with the oil effect of sun lotion.

 

I was enjoying this hike from very early on, and despite being overtaken by a few other hikers, I still felt I was maintaining a good pace. With increasing height, it was possible to appreciate the Kaikoura Peninsula starting to jut out into the Pacific Ocean as well as the peak of Mt Fyffe in the distance, and eventually a lookout was reached on a little flat outcrop of land from where the Kowhai River could be seen snaking across the plains. Continuing on from here, the track continued onwards until it reached an area overlooking Sandy Saddle where the mountains behind Mt Fyffe were the dominant view. The Kaikoura Ranges were a beautiful and staggering view with their steep sides and green vegetation, and sneaking in and out of sight in the valley below was the upper reaches of the Kowhai River. There were puffs of clouds above these inland mountains but otherwise it was exceptionally clear.

 

There was a short flat section before once again the gradient steepened and the track zig-zagged again. The view was staggering in every direction and already I was approaching the 1000m (3281ft) mark and beyond. Then further along the track, a junction appeared where the Spaniard Spur track offers a steep descent down to the Kowhai River. From here it is just a few minutes walk to the Mt Fyffe Hut at 1100m (3609ft) where there is a drop toilet and the ability to sleep, shelter and cook. There was a couple there that had come up the day before in the bad weather and camped the night, waking up to a beautiful sunrise. From here, the view out to the Kaikoura Peninsula was unobstructed and I can only imagine how amazing that dawn view would have been from there.

 

Leaving the hut and several other hikers behind, I continued on up the summit track which is narrower, cutting through a copse, before again starting its long snaking wind up the ridgeline. The stony ground was a slip hazard in places and I passed several people heading down from the summit. The further I walked I could now see some clouds whipping down into the valley between the two lines of mountains and I always find it fascinating watching the clouds form, swirl, then disperse. I imagined what it would have felt like to have been up Mt Fyffe the night of the earthquake as I saw large stones and boulders littered across the path. It’s one thing to feel a large earthquake when you are home in your own bed away from the epicentre, but I think it would have been very different to be in a hut 1100m (3609ft) up a mountain right over the source.

 

Higher still there were some sections of walking through tightly packed bushes, and eventually I reached a sign denoting 1500m (4921ft). It was incredible to look back down at the ridgeline already hiked and the Pacific Ocean was now a huge expanse spreading out to the east. The cloud was really starting to build up now over the valley at times obliterating the view of the neighbouring mountains. But still the track climbed higher until close to the summit it felt like I was walking into the cloud. I reached Mt Fyffe summit at 1602m (5256ft) just as the last people there were leaving, and so I had it to myself.

 

Looking west, the cloud bank was now thick and it swirled upwards to hover above my head where it was dissipating in a wisp that looked like a large wave about to break. Out east though, the coastline was mostly clear and Kaikoura lay sprawled out below me, stretching along the coastline of the peninsula. The Pacific Ocean shimmered by its side. A couple of picnic benches were handily placed to give a rest spot with a view. It was a little chilly now with the altitude and the clouds overhead, and unfortunately the view west was mostly obliterated, but I enjoyed my lunch in peace and quiet, only being joined by another hiker when I was getting ready to leave.

 

As I returned to the track to head down, the swirling clouds gave me sneaky peaks of the mountains hidden behind them and it really split the view in two. There was still plenty of people heading up as I was going down, by now in the early afternoon. The hut seemed deserted when I reached it again and now there were large shadows created by the clouds behind and to the side of me. The best of the weather is always in the mornings in the mountains, so it pays to set off early for the best views. But as the altitude started to drop away, and the track moved south, the clouds were left behind and the sunshine remained, treating me to a very pleasant walk back to my car. The view steadily dropped away again until I was back amongst the trees, snaking my way down the final decline towards my waiting car. I had a long drive back to Christchurch to get under way, and first I had to negotiate the track that I had lost traction on on the way in. Thankfully my car managed the incline in reverse without problems, and picking my way past the potholes, missing verge and diggers, I made my way back to Kaikoura, and set off on the long drive home.

Kaikoura – Open for Business

In February 2012 I left New Zealand’s North Island behind and set foot on the South Island for the first time in my life. I jumped straight on the train at Picton and travelled along the scenic Coastal Pacific route to reach Kaikoura, a small town spread along the Pacific coastline and within a few hours of arriving there I met a Kiwi bloke from Auckland, a man who to this day is still my partner. On our one year anniversary we returned to Kaikoura to partake in some wildlife spotting activities that I’d missed out on the first time around and since then we’ve stopped in on the place when passing north to Picton. And so I’d planned on doing again on my return from the Queen Charlotte Track in November 2016, having booked a night’s stay in Kaikoura as well as a trip out to see the local whales. But just 12 days before that night, the November 14th earthquake hit and the town, the coastline and the road north was closed down. I was keen to get up there as soon as road access was gained and finally a suitable weekend arose so that my partner and I (and some relatives in tow) could return to Kaikoura.

At the end of February when we travelled there, there were two points of access to the town: the Inland road, route 70, which cuts west to State Highway 7, or State Highway 1 (SH1) which heads south to Christchurch. The inland route is open 24/7 although there are many speed restrictions in place. SH1 was (and at the time of writing still is) only open during the day and is also subject to sudden closures in the event of bad weather or aftershocks. But Kaikoura is very much open for business and is still more than worthy of a visit.

The drive north from Christchurch is interesting to say the least. Prior to Cheviot (which has some clay cliffs nearby which are worthy of a detour) there is little to suggest that anything is amiss, but after stopping here for coffee on route, we drove the next section with fresh eyes. With a mixture of detours, speed limits and one-laned sections, SH1 snakes the familiar route north to the east coast and this is the most dramatic section of the drive where rubble still scatters the roadside and the train line disappears into rocks or blocked tunnels. I knew that the sea bed had lifted a metre or so along here, but the tide was out making it difficult to appreciate what was new. It had been a couple of years since I’d last passed through here so the coastal effects weren’t immediately obvious. Eventually arriving into Kaikoura we headed straight to the peninsula to walk the coastal walkway.

This is a beautiful and easily accessed walk from Kaikoura, following the cliffs round the peninsula’s coastline. We started at the south end which has a less steep though longer ascent, and it was a gloriously sunny day. There was definitely more rocks above sea level than I remembered but with the low tide I couldn’t quite decide how much of a difference there was. It took looking back at old photos once home to realise just what a difference there actually was. But nonetheless, this walk is stunning. With views out over the sparkling Pacific Ocean, and back towards Kaikoura town and the Kaikoura Ranges behind it, it was a popular walk. From up high, it is sometimes possible to spot dolphins and fur seals, although the wildlife spotting is best done out on a boat or down near the water. Kaikoura is famous for whale watching thanks to a deep ocean trench not far from shore, but it’s not common to see whales from the shore. There is also a pathway that follows the coast at sea level, and this allows a closer look at New Zealand’s fur seals. The Kaikoura coastline is a fantastic and fairly guaranteed viewing location for fur seals, but like any wildlife, they should be viewed from a safe distance and always given respect.

Kaikoura Peninsula coastline 2017

The same view in 2013

Walking the Kaikoura Peninsula walkway 2017

The same view in 2013

After reaching the car park on the northern aspect of the peninsula, we headed to a lookout which gives a cracking view towards the Kaikoura Ranges, part of the Southern Alps that spans the length of the South Island. My whole reason for wanting to go to Kaikoura last year was to hike Mount Fyffe, one of the distinctive peaks behind the town. The hiking track had remained closed for months following the earthquake but I had been excited to learn that it had reopened shortly before our trip. Whilst my partner and his relatives were on a sightseeing mission, I had a long weekend, and was planning on staying behind to hike after they headed back to Christchurch.

After checking in to our accommodation we took a walk to the main street to go to the pub for a drink in the sun. It was nice to see plenty of people about, but in relative terms, the town was very quiet considering this was normally their peak season. It was sad to see the place that I had met my partner was closed down, as was the place that we stayed on our anniversary. Even the pub we usually went for breakfast at was closed. One of the stores that I was keen to visit had also gone, and it was clear that there had been widespread effects from the earthquake. Thankfully the wildlife, which is one of the big draws for the town is still around, although the risen sea bed has influenced the way the whale watching tours run, and one of the area’s great spots for seeing fur seal pups, the Ohau Falls, is sealed off and unreachable. But the whale watching and dolphin swimming tours are still running and seem to be just as popular as ever. By all accounts, there is no reduction in sightings either, so thankfully, some businesses are able to function in a nearly normal manner.

After drinks on a rooftop at one of the pubs that was still open, we headed out for dinner at a pizza parlour. The owner’s home was unlivable and he had been moved around a few times over the past few months. Whilst I am painfully introverted, my partner loves making conversation with shop owners and staff wherever we go so we got chatting to a few locals over the weekend, enquiring how things had been for them. There was many concerns for the future for several of them, especially as some of the businesses rely heavily on the profits made through a busy summer season to get them through the quieter winter season. For many, there were big financial concerns.

The next morning we ate breakfast in a local cafe. I had planned to hike Mt Fyffe that day but the weather was dismal and the tops of the mountains weren’t even visible. My partner and his relatives were leaving soon and I pondered what to do with myself. By coincidence, I spotted a poster on the cafe wall for a free concert in Kaikoura that very day to raise the spirits of the locals and figured that would be fun. In the meantime, I headed past some murals to the Kaikoura museum, a new addition to the town which hadn’t existed the last time I was there. I didn’t expect much, but with the rain turned on and not much else to do, I paid the entrance fee and made a point of reading every single display sign that was there. A little jumbled and haphazard, it was actually interesting enough to while away a good amount of time. Other people came and went but I slowly meandered around. There was information about the fauna of the area, the whaling history of the area, immigration and it even contained the entire old jail which was effectively a two-roomed building: a normal cell and a padded cell for those deemed mentally disturbed. The staff at the museum seemed rather surprised at the amount of time I was in the museum for, but I emerged to a drier sky.

It remained cloudy but dry for the afternoon. I took my time wandering along the long shoreline to the Pier Hotel where the concert was taking place. I figured I’d hang out for an hour or so before continuing along to the fur seal colony on the peninsula, but with the likes of Sunshine Sound System, Tiki Taane and Peacekeepers playing I ended up staying till the end of the show. Entrance was free but the sale of food and alcohol was going towards a community rebuild and it was great to see such an event taking place. There was a good crowd, and I sat first on the shore taking in the view with the music as my background, then later I joined the crowd by the stage to dance the hours away. It was pitch black by the time I left, and I headed back to my hostel in the dark.

The next morning was the glorious day I was wanting for my hike. It was a little cold first thing as I headed out to the peninsula to enjoy breakfast whilst looking out for fur seals. The Kaikoura Range brooded behind the town and I contemplated the amount of altitude gain I had to make that day. I anticipated a tough hike. Again, I couldn’t quite decide if the amount of rocks was tidal-related or uplift related, but I managed to spot a heron and as is often the case here, a sleeping fur seal lay right next to the car park. But soon it was time to head off for the hike. I anticipated a full day’s walk and then I had to drive straight back to Christchurch afterwards. I always love visiting Kaikoura. It is such a stunning setting and a great place for both relaxation and activity. It is most definitely open for business, albeit in a slightly reduced capacity, but now more than ever, this place needs visitors. Although it is not as straightforward to get there as it used to be, it is still very much worth the detour.

Mount Herbert via Packhorse Hut

Once upon a time, two large volcanoes stood side by side on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. As they eroded, the craters formed two large harbours which today are known as Lyttelton harbour and Akaroa harbour. The volcanic remains have become the mountainous playground of Banks Peninsula, a stark contrast to the flatness of the Canterbury Plains which sit immediately to the west. Christchurch, the south island’s largest city, nestles just the other side of the Port Hills, making the peninsula a perfect spot for getaways from the city.

Standing proudly behind Diamond Harbour, Banks Peninsula’s tallest peak, Mount Herbert is a great choice for hiking. With a choice of four main routes up, I am slowly but surely working my way through the route options. I first summited Mt Herbert via Orton Bradley Park, a track that requires private transport to get to the starting point, and since then, I took the most popular route up from Diamond Harbour which can be reached by public transport from Christchurch. I later found out about another route up from Kaituna Valley and this again requires your own transport to reach the starting point. Unlike the other two routes which start from the northern aspect, this third route starts from the south.

From Christchurch city centre it is a 45min drive curving round the side of the Port Hills on the Akaroa road before cutting up the Kaituna Valley road past open farmland, eventually arriving at Parkinson’s Road. It was a hot sunny February day when I pulled up around 11am and there was barely any space left to park. I had planned on setting off earlier to beat the heat, but as often happens on a Sunday, I’d enjoyed a bit of a lie in before eventually getting out of bed. So as I stepped out my car, the dashboard thermometer was already reading 26oC. It was going to be a scorcher.

The track I was kicking off on was to take me to one of the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) huts called the Packhorse Hut. Even this hut itself has a few options to reach there, and being within easy reach of Christchurch, it is a popular destination for people to go for a night. As such, it requires to be booked. The DOC sign stated a 2hr walk to reach the hut, and the track starts off across private farming land. Stiles are provided to cross the fences meaning gates don’t need to be touched, and at the time I was hiking, stock was everywhere. It is important not to worry stock when passing over private land, but sheep being sheep, they often make it very hard to get past them without them getting spooked.

 

There is quite a long and relatively gentle meander across the farmland before finally the wide track zig-zags across a stream and starts climbing. And once the climb starts, it just keeps on going. The summer just passed did not offer much opportunity to get up into the mountains unlike the summer before, so despite hiking the Queen Charlotte Track just 2.5 months prior, I was out of shape once more. The gradient of this hike should have been well within my capabilities but instead I found myself huffing and puffing in the heat and needing to stop often. Once the trees parted though, the view opened up more and more and looking behind me the Pacific Ocean was glinting in the sunlight through a gap in the hillside, and in front of me lay the distinctive peak of Mt Bradley. Now I started to enjoy the hike.

 

There was plenty of other people on the track heading both up and down, although most people had been sensible enough to head off hours before me, so most of the people I saw were on their way back from the hut. When I reached the Packhorse Hut there were several people milling about inside and out, and others still could be seen on the track up from Gebbies Pass to the north. Directly in front was the Port Hills across the harbour, behind which lies Christchurch, and just peaking into view was the head of Lyttelton Harbour.

 

Built of local volcanic stone in 1914, the Packhorse Hut is one of four stone huts built as a resthouse for a proposed walking route between Christchurch and Akaroa. The brainchild of Harry Ell, a city councillor and member of parliament in the early 1900s, he was well known for his interests in recreation and conservation, and played a role in the creation of many of the reserves that now exist on the Port Hills. Whilst only three of his resthouses came to pass in his lifetime, a fourth followed after his death and all of them still stand to this day. The Sign of the Kiwi at the top of Dyers Pass road is a cafe, having recently reopened following the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010/2011. The Sign of the Takahe lower down Dyers Pass road is a restaurant, although it still remains closed for repairs following the earthquakes. The Sign of the Bellbird off Summit road started life as a tearoom but now is really just a shelter. It is a great picnic spot, although unfortunately after someone set fire to the roof in 2015, it is now completely open to the elements. And the Sign of the Packhorse is what is now the DOC run Packhorse Hut.

 

After taking a quick look inside before stopping for a snack, I still had some way to go to reach Mt Herbert. It was by now about 1pm, the sun was high and the DOC sign related a 3hr hike to Mt Herbert summit. This was longer than I’d anticipated but at least there were still many hours of daylight ahead. From the hut, the track follows the Summit Walkway which has recently been renamed with its Maori name to Te Ara Pataka. The track followed the curve of the land towards a small section within the bush which was some welcome respite from the sun, but before long it was back out in the elements and the zig-zags began. About 210m (689ft) altitude gain is achieved through a series of zig-zags up the slope of Mt Bradley. Here I met a group of people coming back from the summit who seemed surprised to see me and enquired about how well equipped I was and how much water I had. It put a hint of doubt in my mind that somehow this hike was more than I thought it would be.

 

Finally though, I was on the relative flat below the bluff of Mt Bradley’s summit. The view from the track up had been impressive enough, but from this higher altitude it was stunning. Although it undulated, it stayed roughly around 720-730m (2362-2395ft) with lots of bush on either side although nothing above to shade from the sun. I was now on the lookout for a nice lunch spot but there was nowhere to stop and sit. Both ahead and behind me the track was empty of people. Most of the people at the hut turned back there, so this section of the walk was devoid of people compared to the lower section. After some time of hugging the mountainside, the track dipped slightly and went into a copse. The shade was welcome so I found a large rock to sit on to have my lunch.

 

I was in a total reverie munching away when a loud and angry yell made me jump. Somebody unseen had yelled an obscenity so loudly that I had a momentary fear about who was approaching. As the unseen man grew nearer I heard more anger, albeit at a lower volume and then round a corner in the path came a man in his 20s. He asked how far the summit was and although I wasn’t sure exactly, I surmised that it was probably 60-90mins away based on the DOC sign and how long I’d been walking for. He swore again, complained about the track dropping altitude when it was supposed to be going up and stomped off, leaving me in peace once more. As he must have also come from the Packhorse Hut, regardless of which route he took to get there, he will have passed at least one sign with a distance marker to the summit, so I couldn’t understand why he was so annoyed, when it is clearly stated the length of the hike at each stage. At least he was wearing proper shoes and had a backpack. I’ve seen many tourists hiking up mountains in jandals (flip-flops) with either no water or just a small bottle in their hand.

Finally moving on myself, it wasn’t much further till the path came out at a fence line on a low ridge past the far side of Mt Bradley. Crossing the stile, I could now see Lyttelton Harbour again, and as the path meandered on, I found myself at the junction with the track down to Orton Bradley Park. Now I was on familiar territory. Some way on I came across Mt Herbert Shelter, a small hut just off the path. It has a nice view from the front deck, but I was keen to get to the summit so I pushed on without stopping. A little up the track I passed the angry man on his return trip who still looked thoroughly grumpy, and finally I was at the familiar turn-off for the summit. It was the last push up to a relatively deserted summit. This is a popular mountain to hike, so normally the summit is busy, but after 3pm as it was, it was quite late on in the day. With a predicted high of 29oC, everybody else had been much more sensible and set off earlier in the day.

 

At 919m (3015ft), there is a beautiful 360o view over Banks Peninsula and Lyttelton Harbour as well as out to the Pacific Ocean. As always, Christchurch was under a haze but the Southern Alps mountain range was still visible in the far distance. It is a broad summit, so there is plenty of space to walk around to see different aspects and I noted that the DOC signage had been updated since I’d last been there to include its Maori name of Te Ahu Patiki. From here it is possible to continue hiking along the Summit Walkway towards Port Levy, and this is the 4th route up to Mt Herbert, and the only one I am yet to walk.

After a while it was time to head home. It had taken over 4hrs to summit, but as always the downhill is easier, and although the section below the bluffs of Mt Bradley felt like it went on forever, I was back in my car in just 2.5hrs. As I passed the Packhorse Hut, there was a family setting up a tent outside, and I met some people hiking up when I reached the flat section across the farmland. They were heading to the hut and back but had waited to escape the heat of the day. It had been a scorcher for sure, and I had worried I would run out of water, but in the end all was well. Of the 3 routes I’ve done, this is the longest one to the summit, but it was good to explore somewhere new and I always enjoy discovering New Zealand’s myriad of mountain huts.

Lake Brunner

Sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. When it comes to domestic holidays, they tend to be either a roadie or city break with my partner, or an independent hiking trip in the mountains. With my partner having to work through the Christmas weekend, I on the other hand had a few days off and figured I’d make the most of the solitude bagging some summits. I was looking for somewhere that wasn’t a crazy drive away, but yet wasn’t overly familiar either, and after a bit of zooming in and out of Google Maps, I spotted what looked like the ideal location: Lake Brunner in the West Coast region. I’d passed here on the TranzAlpine train ride from Christchurch to Greymouth a few years ago, but otherwise hadn’t given it any attention, but looking at the landscape on Topomap, I noticed there were some mountains around the lake that would serve as good day hikes. Finding a cheap and cheerful place to stay for a few nights, I was sorted for my summer break.

But despite some cracking weather in November to hike the Queen Charlotte Track, spring and now summer weren’t showing much promise weather-wise, and as Christmas came round, the forecast was underwhelming to say the least. After finishing work on Christmas Eve, I set off from Christchurch to head west and hit a wall of grey skies as I reached the Southern Alps. Still, the road through Porters Pass then Arthur’s Pass is a scenic and enjoyable trip with plenty of choice to stop at on the way. I stopped first on the shores of Lake Lyndon which sat below Trig M, a hike I’d done earlier in the year, and then ignored the popular stops of Castle Hill and Cave Stream having done them many times before, opting instead to pull in at the lookout above the Otira Viaduct to the north of Arthur’s Pass. Aside from the view down the valley, this place is almost guaranteed for Kea sightings, and I wasn’t disappointed.

 

Before moving to New Zealand, I had no idea such a creature existed, but the world’s only alpine parrot has become my favourite bird here. Full of cheek, curiosity and highly intelligent, they are extraordinary to watch and interact with. It is important not to feed them, and also important to be aware of your belongings around them at all times, as they will do their best to relieve you of anything you leave lying around and are notorious for pulling and chewing anything that is within reach, be it tyres, aerials or cameras. They are far from shy, and sitting in the driver’s seat with my door open, I sat and watched as one cocky individual casually gnawed on the metal of my car door before striding off proud as punch.

 

Arriving at Moana on the shore of Lake Brunner the sky was still moody but there were some glints of sunshine trying to burst through in places. After checking in to my cabin in the woods just outside of the village, I parked up near the lake shore and set off on one of the local walks, the Raikatane walk. This is an easy walk that crosses a suspension bridge over the Arnold river and circles in the woods to the north, as well as offering the opportunity to explore the far shore of Lake Brunner. Apart from a few birds for company, I was effectively on my own. With tourism being a major part of the New Zealand economy, it is getting harder and harder to get away from the crowds here, meaning peace and tranquility can be a pipe dream during the summer months. Thankfully Lake Brunner flies under the radar of the vast majority of foreign tourists, and it is more the realm of domestic tourists with a high percentage of Kiwi accents being heard compared to elsewhere. In my solitude I looked across the large lake to the mountains on the far side cloaked in low clouds, their summits hidden from me. The water lapped gently on the shore as I trudged across the pebbles enjoying a brief splurge of sunshine. Back in the cabin, I had the use of a shared kitchen, and over the next 3 nights, I got to know my fellow guests as we chatted over wine and food. I’d recently discovered the most heavenly sparkling wine made at a Canterbury winery to the west of Christchurch and before I knew it I was warm and merry.

 

I awoke on Christmas Day to more grey skies. My plan was to head round to Te Kinga, a small settlement on the eastern shore in order to hike Mount Te Kinga. As I drove there I was dismayed to see the cloud was even lower than the day before and the bulk of the mountain was hidden from view. It seemed a popular place to camp for the night at the car park at Te Kinga, and as several people were stirring, I was lacing up my hiking boots and preparing to hike. As there are a couple of viewpoints overlooking the lake on the way to the summit, several people were on the trail that morning. From early on, I just wasn’t feeling it that day. I’ve hiked a lot of mountains in New Zealand, mainly in Canterbury, and although I’ve enjoyed them to varying degrees, I’d never disliked a hike as much as this one. It may in part have been because I knew I’d get no view at the top, or maybe because I felt a little lonely on Christmas Day, but as much as I trudged up the hillside on autopilot, there was just no love for me that day.

 

The track was not that great either. It was reasonable quality up to the first viewpoint but then a permanent sign noted an expectation of mud, and boy was it muddy. Between the wetness of the spring and the thick foliage preventing drying, there was plenty of mud underfoot and a lot of tree roots to negotiate. To top it off, my hiking trousers ripped in dramatic fashion as I stepped up over a tree root, revealing most of my thigh and part of my crotch (albeit still thankfully covered by my underpants). Thankfully I had my waterproof trousers with me which quickly were donned to save my dignity. At the top lookout everybody else on the trail was turning back but I passed the sign warning the track was for experienced hikers only and pressed on up the increasingly rough and vague track. The vegetation was dense and after a bit of rock and root scrambling I suddenly found the route blocked by a large fallen tree. It was too high to climb over it, there was no gap to climb through or under it, and the tree was big enough and the surrounding vegetation thick enough that I couldn’t see a way around it. There was no evidence of anyone else creating a route either, so I surmised that it was a relatively recent obstruction, but try as might I saw no way to continue. It was both a frustration and a godsend as I really had had no love for this hike, and took it as an omen to turn round and head back.

 

So now I found myself with a lot of time to kill. Thankfully my lodgings had provided me with a handy area map detailing local walks, so I headed south and round the long-winded road system that had to circumnavigate Mt Te Kinga and another lake to cut back up to the south shore of Lake Brunner to head towards the settlement of Mitchells. The road degraded from a sealed road to a metalled road but it was heavily rutted in places and having replaced my banged up motor with a newer model during the winter, I was rather cautious, especially in those sections where a skid off the road would have had me in the lake. Just outside Mitchells, a pull-in denoted the start of the Carew Falls walk. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign stated 30mins each way but it was more like 15mins for me and I found myself at the base of the falls in time to see a group of people abseiling down the face. It was a beautiful cascade and I watched with intrigue as the group picked their way down, briefly chatting with them at the bottom before they left me alone with the flies. I sat for a while listening to the thundering water before the swarms of flies forced me to leave.

 

It was just a few minutes drive down to the lakeside at Mitchells to reach the Bain Bay walk. On a mixture of boardwalks and sandy tracks it curved round Carew Bay and started with such promise. I passed a sign warning of occasional flooding on the track but thought nothing of it until just 5 mins later I discovered the track disappeared into the lake. There was no way to get round it without getting very wet, and for the second time that day I found myself immensely frustrated at having my hike thwarted by the elements. It appeared the lake level was higher than normal and there was nothing I could do about it. There was at least a beautiful mirrored vista across the lake, so despite the grey skies and occasional drizzle, it was still a pretty sight to behold. Pausing briefly at the lakeside on the way back, I made my way back to Moana and passed it by in order to do yet another walk in the area. But despite the description stating the turnoff was signposted, I drove the length of the road twice and couldn’t work out where I was supposed to go. Frustrated once more and feeling deflated, I returned to my cabin in the woods, heated up my ‘gourmet’ hikers instant dinner, filled my glass with wine and parked up in front of the tv to watch Christmas Day movies.

 

To the south-west of Lake Brunner lies Mount French, my chosen summit for Boxing Day. But waking up to grey sky once more, a quick drive to the lake shore confirmed my suspicion: most of the mountain was hidden in clouds. After a disasterous attempt at Mt Te Kinga the day before, I opted to cut my losses and acknowledge that the hiking gods were not smiling down on me that weekend. Anticipating this the night before, I had done some quick reading on what my local options were, and headed north-west to the west coast a short drive north from Greymouth. Here lies the Point Elizabeth walkway, a coastal walk that can be undertaken in either direction. I chose to start at the northern end and head south, meaning I parked up just outside of Rapahoe. It was a nice walk through some tropical vegetation. The sun broke through in patches and for the most part I was on my own. The odd jogger appeared from time to time, and at the halfway mark there is a lookout at Point Elizabeth. Some information posts in a few places described the flora and the possible fauna that could be spotted but despite the relatively calm sea, I spotted no marine life that day.

 

The west coast gets the brunt of the weather as it crosses the open expanse of the Tasman Sea which separates Australia from New Zealand. As such, the west coast is a wild and battered coastline, and the beaches here are littered with washed up flotsam and are of a stony nature rather than sand. Still, from above on the track, the long stretch of beach reaching south towards Greymouth looked inviting on approach and when I reached it, I found a handy log to park my butt on for a while, and I sat there for some time contemplating life and the universe whilst listening to the waves crashing on the shore. Eventually I set off in the return direction, stopping once more at the lookout before pushing on to return to my awaiting car.

 

A short drive along the road in nearby Runanga is the Coal Creek walking track. Cutting through a pleasant forest, the track gradually descends down to meet the Coal Creek, eventually coming out above and then dropping down to face onto, the Coal Creek falls. Having passed a lot of people on the track heading back to their cars, I timed my arrival with perfection, getting the falls to myself for long enough to feel satisfied before other people started to arrive. Picking your way across the rocks at the river side allows slightly differing views of this beautiful waterfall and even though the water appeared dark under the grey sky, I really liked this waterfall. As more and more people arrived, I left them to it, and headed back up to the top of the hill to sit on the bench there and watch the falls from above for a while before heading back to my car.

 

Greymouth itself was pretty much closed down for the day as it was a public holiday. The place resembled a ghost town, so after finding somewhere that I could grab a coffee (which turned out to be a highly disappointing coffee), I crossed the Grey river to Cobden hill from where a lot of people were surfing the breaks off the beach. Nearby a small wetlands provided a nice little walk accompanied by some waterfowl and a shag drying itself on a branch.

 

Sticking to the north side of the Grey river, I headed back to Lake Brunner, stopping at the site of the Brunner mine, a coal mine which suffered an explosion in 1896 killing 65 miners. To this day, even with the tragic and relatively recent events at the infamous Pike River mine, the Brunner explosion resulted in the highest death rate in the history of New Zealand mining disasters. Thanks to the gallantry of many people, all the bodies were recovered despite horrendous conditions in the mine following the event, and it is this retrieval process that has been the object of immense contention in the more recent Pike River mine disaster where sadly the bodies of those who perished still remain out of reach in the depths of the collapsed mine. The Brunner site is worthy of a look around. The entrance to the various mine shafts are fenced off, and the few remaining buildings are in a poor state of repair, but in places a smell hangs in the air, a reminder of the dangerous gases that linger below the surface. Crossing the bridge over the Grey river, an old chimney stands tall near the roadside.

 

Thanks to a bit of guesswork on the road back to Lake Brunner, I finally found the walk I’d looked for and failed to find the day before. The Arnold Dam walk follows the Arnold river to a dam and then heads up the hillside before returning to the power station where the walk starts from. The place felt eerie and after the track quickly became unappealing, I decided that I’d walked enough that day and turned round and headed back to my cabin. Having got chatting with some fellow guests, they had attempted Mt Te Kinga themselves that day despite me telling them of the fallen tree. They reported that they had made it past the fallen tree, but yet they too had had to turn back shortly after as the track became a ghost track and impossible to follow. Waking up to heavy rain the next morning, there seemed no point in hanging around. With the rain following me almost the whole way back to Christchurch, there seemed to be no point in stopping anywhere, so I found myself back home in time for lunch. The weekend had been a perfect example of plans in the outdoors failing to come to fruition. I’d failed to summit my target mountains, although I’d certainly managed to get some walking in anyway. But at least there were only a few days of work to get through before heading to the capital for New Years. Surely the weather wouldn’t fail me for two weekends in a row…

Mount Barrosa

Despite being the last month of autumn, the weather in New Zealand’s South Island has remained relatively warm, meaning a lack of snow on the mountain tops, and an extension to my hiking season. With a multi-day hike coming up in July, I am aware that I need to keep up some degree of fitness, despite the dark nights tricking my body into a sense of hibernation. Already several weeks on from my last hike up Avalanche Peak, some good weather again coincided with a day off work, and I set off on the now-familiar route south-west from Christchurch.

About an hour and a half’s drive away, lies the small village of Mt Somers which nestles at the base of the mountain with the same name. From here, Ashburton Gorge Road winds west into Hakatere Conservation Park. Before the sealed portion of road ends, beyond which lies Mt Guy and Mt Sunday, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it car park denotes the starting point for the Mt Barrosa summit track. Arriving mid-morning on a Sunday, I had the place to myself.

Start of the hike

Initially passing through private land, the path marked by orange poles follows the fence line before crossing a small stream once and then twice to the base of the mountain. Here a stile marks the transition onto public land within the Hakatere Conservation Park. Immediately the climb starts, winding through low scrub, following a reasonably worn path marked out by orange poles. It feels like altitude is gained quite quickly without feeling too exhausting and, as many of the hikes have had, I was constantly accompanied by hopping crickets.

On the ascent

Like Mt Guy, the lack of anything other than ground vegetation, meant it was an exposed walk the whole way up. With the sun quite low in the sky in May, several portions of the trail were in shadow in the morning, but on a summer’s day, this would have been a hot one. But aside from the exposure factor, I found the hike a little uninteresting with little to look at other than the jumping crickets and the path before me. The neighbouring gullies were in shadow and the nearest birds sounded far away.

Neighbouring slope

After about 40mins, a little interest came in the form of some rock formations that the path skirted round, and each lower ridge had a differing size of rock point jutting up. Stopping to take in the view which is mostly behind you as you climb, the valley below started to open up more and more. I could see my lonely car in the car park for over the first hour of the hike, getting smaller and smaller, until the path skirted another rocky outcrop and crossed slightly over the mountain front.

The valley below

Shadows and light

One of many rocky outcrops

I reached a false summit about 1.5hrs after leaving the car behind, and only now could I actually see the summit of Mt Barrosa ahead of me. The steepest section of the hike was behind me by this point, but the path quality deteriorated from here on in, where large sections involved simply making a bee-line for the next orange pole, as it continued the ongoing climb. Now the view up the valley revealed Lake Clearwater and Mt Guy as well as Lake Heron, and this remained my view the rest of the way up.

View from the false ridge

Looking towards the summit ridge

Panorama from the mountain flank

Looking upwards

Although the gradient of the hike was not as steep as the lower section, there was a lot more scree and boulders underfoot, but the orange poles did enough to guide you in the right direction. However, when the ridge line was finally reached, even the orange poles disappeared. A fence split the ridge line in two, and it was easy to follow this until the unmarked summit (1364m) was reached. A lonely orange pole stood proud at the top, and clusters of large rocks made for an interesting summit.

Nearing the summitMt Barrosa summit

Rocky panorama

Summit panorama

I have read on some sites that from the summit, Aoraki/Mt Cook is visible, but I don’t believe this is true. There was certainly a distinctive mountain top on the horizon, but I think this is most likely Mt D’Archiac or another peak. In my mind, Mt Cook is both too far away and behind too many tall peaks to be visible from there. What is visible though, is Mt Somers and the tramping track that skirts its circumference, as well as a plethora of other mountains. Looking east, the Pacific Ocean was just visible through the haze.

Mt Somers

Mt Guy

With little to no wind at the summit, it was pleasant, and I loitered up there on my own for quite some time, enjoying the solitude and the view. It had been a while since I’d enjoyed a quiet summit, having hiked many popular routes this summer. Retracing my steps the way I had come, meant that after negotiating the upper reaches where the lack of distinct path meant a lot of foot watching, the lower portions meant I could enjoy the view a bit more. By now early-afternoon, the sun had shifted so that the shadows played out differently on the return leg. I found myself almost skipping down, and was surprised to spot another car in the car park as it came back into view. Only at the very bottom, back at the stile into private land, did I come across the occupants: a family out walking their dogs, and the only people I met on the hike. I reached my car 4hrs 5mins after leaving it behind. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign at the bottom lists the hike as 2.5hrs to the summit. I reached the top in about 2hrs 10mins, only a little ahead of the normally generous timing, but the ease at which I came down, meant the return leg was only about an hour. Then it was a simple case of enjoying the rest of my snacks as I headed back home to Christchurch.

Heading back down

Descending towards the false summit

Ashburton Gorge

The valley below

Avalanche Peak

Shortly after moving to Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island over 4 years ago, I read about an enticing peak nestled within the Southern Alps near the village of Arthur’s Pass. I was keen to get up it but life and a dramatic change in fitness got in my way. But after spending the Southern Hemisphere’s summer hiking as many peaks within reach as the weather would allow, I finally felt that Avalanche Peak was within grasp. Only the seasons have turned, meaning shortening days and cooler weather and a risk of wind and snow about the peaks grows ever more likely. I had started to think that it would have to wait another year, when thankfully, some good weather coincided with a day off, and I realised my luck had turned.

And what a perfect day it turned out to be. The little alpine village of Arthur’s Pass is just over a 2 hr drive west from Christchurch, but nestled as it is amongst an impressive mountain range, its weather system is so very different to that of the Canterbury Plains to the east, and even with the MetService website suggesting all would be well, you are never sure what you are going to get until you get there. The west coast road from Christchurch to Greymouth is one of my favourite drives in the country. There are so many scenic routes to choose from in New Zealand, but this is the road I’ve travelled the most and it never fails to impress.

Over Porter’s Pass from where Trig M is reached, past Lakes Lyndon and Pearson, and onwards to the little settlement of Bealey Spur from where the track of the same name begins, the road winds round the towering mountains and along river beds until, shaded by the hulks of Mounts Bealey & Rolleston, Arthur’s Pass appears. Directly behind the village, the steep slope of Avalanche Peak disappeared above.

There are two routes up Avalanche Peak: the Avalanche Peak track and Scott’s track. The first begins behind the Department of Conservation (DOC) visitor centre, and the second begins just north of the village. Due to the nature of the track, it is recommended to only ever go up the Avalanche Peak track, and not to descend by this route, meaning it should either be hiked as a loop track (up Avalanche Peak track and down Scott’s track), or ascend and descend the same way via Scott’s track. My friend and I were both happy to hike a loop, so we parked at the visitor centre and set off on the marked path behind the building that hugged the tree line.

The start of the Avalanche Peak track

Avalanche Peak route map

Almost immediately after entering the trees, the Avalanche Peak track sets off on a steep incline through the forest. Several other people were heading up at the same time and the whole way up we were playing tag with them as each of us hiked and rested at our own pace. Early on, a stream flowed down the lower rocks in a series of pretty waterfalls, but otherwise for the first hour, most of the hike involved concentrating on your feet as the best foot hold up tree roots and rock faces was sought out. Despite being physically tiring, I was enjoying the process, although it became a lot nicer of a hike when the tree line was reached after not quite an hour and a quarter. Once out of the tree line, the view in all directions was phenomenal. Ahead on the path, the various lower ridges could be seen snaking into the distance. To the left Mount Bealey, and to the right the glacier-clad summit of Mount Rolleston dominated the skyline, and behind us, the valley below opened up.

Avalanche Creek waterfall

Nearby Mt Bealey

Looking north

Looking south

It was now easy to see that this hike was extremely popular. With little wind on a gorgeously sunny autumn day, there were plenty of people strewn along the path both ahead and behind us. The higher we got, the steeper the drop-off either side became but it was an easy path to follow. Several bluffs created a dramatic vista, and later on, like so many mountains I have hiked recently, a scree slope appeared near the top. On this occasion, the path picked its way up the side of the scree, making for a winding, though relatively easy passage. In fact, despite being classed as an alpine hike requiring experience in back country navigation, this was actually not really a technical hike. Only as the summit became within reach, did it change quality.

View south from the Avalanche Peak track

Hikers ahead on the upper slopes of Avalanche Peak

Mt Rolleston peaks up behind the slope of Avalanche Peak

Avalanche Peak route disappearing up the slope

Yellow poles mark the route

Avalanche Peak's scree field

At the top of the path next to the scree field lay a cluster of large boulders that needed to be scrambled over, and then the narrow ridgeline of Avalanche Peak opened up before us. The width varied between a narrow track on a ledge next to some rocks that only 1 person could sidle along, to wider areas that a few people could sit on. As it was, the unmarked summit (1833m altitude) could sit about 6 of us comfortably whilst allowing a little space for others to move around us. Summiting just shy of 2hrs 45mins after starting, I joined my companion who had made it in less time, and we joined some others in a spot of lunch at the summit with a ream of mountain tops for company. It was simply stunning, and worth every drop of sweat on the way up.

The path already travelled

Hikers in the distance on the narrow ridge of Avalanche Peak

Arthur's Pass National Park

Sitting on the rocky summit of Avalanche Peak

The glacier on nearby Mt Rolleston

Summit view south

Summit view north & east

Summit view west

With the lack of wind, despite being autumn, it wasn’t too cold at the top, and there was little rush to leave. We saw some hikers head off the track onto the lower ridge that leads to Mt Rolleston, and still there were more and more people arriving on the upper reaches of Avalanche Peak. After about half an hour we set off, back across the narrow ridgeline towards the boulder cluster, and here the two tracks split. The Avalanche Peak track had been dotted with yellow poles, but this time, we followed the orange poles down Scott’s track.

Track across the summit ridge

Views over Arthur's Pass National Park

Whilst still steep in places, it was a much easier track to follow down, initially dropping off down the side of some impressive bluffs before rolling down a gentle slope towards the treeline. From this track, the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall was clearly visible across the valley on the opposite mountain, and it remained in view for most of the hike down. It was easy to see the west coast road continue north through the valley from here, and only now as we reached some of the lower slopes, did the wind pick up a little. It took only an hour to reach the treeline again, from where it was just another hour to reach the end of the track on the west coast road.

Bluffs in Arthur's Pass National Park

Hikers on the Scott's track above the bluffs

Tiny hiker next to large bluffs

Mountain tarn

Looking across to the far side of the valley

Looking back up Scott's track

Although the path wound its way through the lower forest, the canopy was still open enough to afford a good view for the vast majority of the descent. There was still a lot of need to watch footing through tree branches, streams and over rocks, but there was plenty of opportunity to soak up the view and the image of the waterfall changed as the perspective altered and I took my time going down to enjoy this. My companion reached the end of the track a little ahead of me as I had gone a little snap happy, but still, we were back in the village in a respectable 5.5hrs.

The far side of the valley with waterfall framed int he trees

Descending towards the west coast road

Devil's Punchbowl Waterfall

Arthur's Pass village in the valley

Full height of Devil's Punchbowl waterfall

Although for most people, Arthur’s Pass village is a convenience stop on route from coast to coast, it does have a few places to sleep as well as a couple of cafes, a small convenience store and a train station, so it is a useful place to make as a base for exploring some local hikes. Aside from the nearby mountains, there are also a few lower-level hikes, and the most popular is the walk to the base of the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall. The DOC website lists the Avalanche Peak as 4-5hrs each way which is certainly being generous, but it is definitely a hike requiring a good bit of fitness, and the upper sections definitely need respect in poorer weather conditions. But steep as it was, this is now a firm favourite amongst the many hikes I’ve now down in New Zealand.

Mount Somers

With autumn starting to kick in and the end of daylight savings fast approaching, I am becoming increasingly aware that my hiking season is creeping towards its end. Once the snow starts to fall on the mountain tops and the evenings start to draw in, there won’t be the same opportunities to bag summits. With almost all of the remaining peaks on my list being within Arthur’s Pass National Park, I was dismayed to read the weather forecast for my one weekend day off was dismal and I resigned myself to a weekend without a hike. But after looking at the neighbouring regions’ forecasts, I discovered that there was the possibility of completing my list of summits in the eastern peaks by heading to Mt Somers.

About 1.5hrs drive south-west from Christchurch is the village of Mt Somers, from where a road heads deep into Hakatere Conservation Park, where I had previously visited Mt Guy and Mt Sunday. Not far from the village itself is also the turn-off to 1 of 2 car parks from where the Mt Somers track can be reached. I have been keen to walk this track which is a multi-day walk that circumnavigates the lower slopes of Mt Somers, but I just haven’t had the time. On this occasion however, I decided to tackle the summit itself, and this is best reached from the other car park near the village of Staveley.

The car park was quite full when I got there early on a Sunday morning, but with a few options for tracks from here, I wasn’t sure whether I would end up bumping into anyone else, but even as I set off on the Mt Somers (south face) track, another two cars pulled into the car park behind me. Despite being autumn, it was going to be a hot day and it wasn’t long before I was sweating. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign at the start noted a 5hr hike each way so I was mentally preparing myself for a long day.

Start of the hike

The first 40mins of the walk was within a tall forest, and there was a good amount of altitude gain immediately via a variable quality of track. There were plenty of tree roots and fallen branches to act as trip hazards, meaning a lot of time was spent watching my footing whilst overhead several plump kereru (wood pigeons) flitted through the trees. Shortly after leaving the car park behind I was overtaken by an older man who was power walking the track. His only belonging was a regular-sized bottle of water which looked rather small considering he was also heading for the summit. Still, he was much fitter than me, steaming ahead in no time at all.

Forest track

When the trees finally broke under the glare of the hot sun, the dramatic peak of Mt Somers was fully visible, as was the Canterbury Plains below. Through shoulder-height vegetation, the rocky path picked its way over a series of ever-higher knolls giving a fantastic and ever changing perspective on my target summit as well as the surrounding peaks. I passed a hiker heading to the car park about an hour into my hike, but otherwise there was just the sounds of nature to keep me company. I looked towards the peak and struggled to pick out where the summit route might go, and then before I knew it I had reached the junction where the summit route started. The predicted time from DOC was 2.5hrs to this junction and another 2.5hrs to the summit, but I had made it there in just 1hr and 45mins.

The first sighting of Mt Somers

The path disappearing into the trees

Canterbury Plains

Mt Somers

Mt Somers towering over the Canterbury Plains

The changing face of Mt Somers

Straight away the quality of the track changed, becoming very rocky, uneven and slightly overgrown in places. After a very brief zigzag through some lower bush, it very quickly began to climb and even early on there were patches of scree to negotiate. There was a regular need to grab onto bushes to haul myself up or steady my balance as I negotiated the slippery slopes. I hadn’t been going for long before voices on the wind alerted me to other people coming up behind me. Our paces weren’t too dissimilar in the first third of the hike so they maintained the same distance behind, however as the climb grew rougher and the boulders to negotiate grew bigger, they started to catch up.

The start of the summit track

View from the lower slope of Mt Somers

Rocky path up the slope of Mt Somers

Rocky slope of Mt Somers

Sometimes the path was obvious and other times not so much, but before long I’d reached a low ridge where it was possible to catch my breath as I finally was able to pause and soak up the view. The Canterbury Plains stretched off around me, and looking up towards the summit, the hike looked increasingly tough. All I could see was the track disappearing into a field of boulders and a steep drop either side. The summit looked still so far away. But I pressed on, and now I could see other hikers (including the man who had passed me by at the start of my hike) picking their way down from the top, and as one passed me whilst I struggled to see a route up the rocks, he told me to just make a line for the top and stick to it. There were vague signs of feet having been through some patches already, but it really was just a case of focusing on the orange pole at the top and just finding the easiest route up to it. But it was easy to get distracted and veer off to the side in search of an easier foot hold, and the couple who had been behind me all this time, overtook me. They seemed to keep a side-ways glance on me to make sure I made it, and then as if satisfied that I was on the right course, they disappeared over the ridge out of view.

The view from the first ridge

The lower ridge above the Canterbury Plains

The track disappearing into a boulder field

I felt triumphant at the top, as boulder scrambles for me are always a bit of a mental challenge, and whilst still having some way to go, I’d achieved most of the altitude by now, and it was simply a matter of traversing the boulders across a long ridge line, until the trig point (1688m) was within reach. The couple were already hunkered down against the wind that was present at the top, and I passed them by making a beeline for the monument further along the ridge. A stone cairn dated 2000 sits atop a directional marker box which contains a visitor’s book, surrounded by a wooden frame with a misspelled inspirational quote around it. Wrapped around Mt Somers is a ream of mountains stretching off into the distance and I could see the poor weather hanging over the inner Alps and shrouding the distant summits. It was a little cold with the wind so I found a semi-sheltered spot to protect myself whilst I paused for some lunch.

The view from the top of the boulder field

Boulders high above the Canterbury Plains

Walking across the ridge line to the summit

Monument at the summit

Year 2000

Monument & trig marker on Mt Somer's summit

I had summited about 3.5hrs after leaving the car park, and as time at the summit ticked on, more and more people appeared. In the end, it turned out to be a very popular walk that day, but everyone I spoke to agreed that it had been a challenge. This is definitely a hike for fit and experienced hikers only. But the reward was the sense of achievement and that view which spanned all the way out to the Pacific Ocean as well as Christchurch and Banks Peninsula in the far distance. There was no haze to cloud the view that day, and I felt like I was on top of the world.

Mt Somer's summit panorama

Mt Somer's panorama

Mt Somer's Trig panorama

Mt Somer's Trig overlooking Canterbury Plains

Mt Somer's trig

Eventually though, it was time to start the descent, and this involved as much attention to footing as the route up had. There was still a steady stream of people coming up as I picked my way down off the ridge line, and I gave a group that were struggling a bit some words of encouragement as I passed. Looking downhill, the path that had appeared vague at times looked a little more obvious with the benefit of perspective, but again I had to lower myself over rocks, squat down to slide on my feet and grab hold of branches and bushes as I gingerly picked my way down. The same couple from before overtook me on the lower slope and we all acknowledged that this hike was as much of a challenge coming down as it had been going up.

Starting the descent

The steep slopes of Mt Somers

The top of the boulder field

Back at the track junction after about 1.5hrs, it was then a pleasant walk back across the knolls and back into the forest below. The clouds had rolled in a little so the sun felt weaker but I was still warm enough. Getting a little tired, I found myself tripping over the tree branches in the lower slopes and I had to go back to concentrating on my footing to prevent twisting an ankle. I was very pleased to turn that last corner and find myself back at the car park. To date, this is the highest mountain I’ve hiked in New Zealand, and whilst it is definitely achievable for many, it is also not a hike to be taken lightly. Classed as an advanced hike by DOC, it is tiring and physically demanding with a large proportion of boulders and scree to negotiate. But at the end of it all, 6.5hrs after leaving it behind, I sat back in my car triumphant and more than a little pleased with myself.

Green cricket

Panorama from the Mt Somer's (south face) track

Heading back to the forest

Rock formation above the Canterbury Plains

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